Romance Contemporary Friendship

The week before the first Coronavirus lockdown, a reverential hush fell upon the London offices of Urquhart, Treadwell and Ungar. They’d asked everyone to clear their desks, archive any paperwork, and make preparations to work from home. My stateside colleagues exited their offices three weeks ago and already there were transatlantic rumours about the end of city-based office work.

I thought I’d achieved closure on my latest case three times in the last fortnight, but the defence kept challenging my calculation of damages. My client, Mrs Haslam, had a strong claim for clinical negligence, but her case wouldn’t go to bed. However, over the last forty-eight hours, I’d made solid progress and by Friday afternoon a final settlement was likely. It was a relief at five thirty when a figure was agreed, even if the timing wasn’t great. My retreat from the City office was behind schedule and now I’d be holding the broom for the caretakers this evening. 

Sure enough, I’m filling my boxes as the men in the blue overalls appear and start removing furniture from the rear of the office. Mrs Haslam can relax knowing that her compensation is assured, but I’m struggling to vacate the building before my desk is taken away. I’ve achieved a substantial triumph, but it’s an anti-climax, given that everyone else’s weekend started over thirty minutes ago. 

I seal up my final archive box and grab my jacket to check for phone messages. There are five texts from my boss. 

“Hey, Jamie, CONGRATS are in order,” Friday 17:32.

“High-end six figure sum confirmed for your client,” Friday 17:43.

“Well done, a perfect end to the week,” Friday 17:54.

“Hey, slow coach! How’s it going?” Friday 18:15.

“Hello, Jamie? Are you still there?” Friday 18:36.

The latest text has the current time stamp, so he’s not heading home on the underground. I return his call. His phone rings twice before he picks up. I hear music in the background.

“Hey Gary, they caved-in and agreed to pay out but---”

“Seriously, you deserve a medal, old chap,” he begins. “Their defence lawyer is known for playing hard ball and you got it over the line.”

“There wasn’t anything else I could’ve---”

“Give me a break, Jamie, you’re a star, I’ve booked a---” 

A muffled voice in the background interrupts. 

“Hang on there,” It’s a waiter or a barman, maybe. “No, it’s fine put it on the tab.”

“Gary, are you still in town---”

“Listen, you’re done and dusted, right?” 

“The movers are taking my PC as we speak---”

“Pop downstairs and let’s have a couple for the road, yeah?”

“I could do with a stiffener or two.”

“Good man, I’ve reserved a table at Fields for eight o’clock. I’ll see you in five.”

By the time I’ve crossed the length of the deserted office floor, they’ve covered my chair in clear plastic and sealed it with duct tape. All the lifts are all in use; they’re piled high with bar-coded boxes full of sensitive documents. I take the staircase down seven floors to the foyer and nod at Jerry on the front desk. 

“Have a relaxing weekend, sir.” 

“See you on Monday—”

“No you won’t, sir,” he smiles and lifts a finger to his forehead to salute me. “You take care.”

I was wrong. Jerry’s going to be the last man standing here, but for how long?

I take less than five minutes to walk to Gary’s favourite local pub in the City. The Dovetail is a handy venue that’s known amongst the legal fraternity for its Belgium beers, wild boar sausages and the ostrich burger, if you’re feeling brave. 

Gary’s sitting outside the pub at a broad wooden table with a couple of tall beers. He reaches forward and hands me a pint glass and raises the remains of his drink. “You made it,” he smiles as we clink our glasses. “What a result.”

“Mrs Haslam’s over the moon and she can’t believe how much—-”

“To her good health!”

“I saw Jerry on the way out, is he---”

“He’ll be all right,” he winks at me as he sips his beer. “He’s part of the furniture.”

“Are they gift wrapping him too?” I smile.

“I’ve got something for you,” he reaches down and produces a bouquet of twelve red roses. “They’re for---”

“Gary,” I chuckle, “you shouldn’t have---”

“No, they’re for Gill,” he snorts. “My other half’s joining us at Fields.”

“Ah, I see.” The penny drops. “The flowers are for her driving you home after---”

“Ha ha,” he says, blowing hot air on his fingernails. “Just ask for Gaston when you get to Fields, he’ll introduce you to Gill and give us his best table.”

“You’re off already?”

“Something’s cropped up,” he says, standing up. “Don’t worry, Gill won’t bite,” he pats my shoulder, “unless you want her to.” 

“You’re coming later, right?”

“I’ve got plenty of time before eight,” he looks me in the eye, “I promise I won’t be too long.”

“Is it in your name or---”

“Don’t worry, it’s all on my expenses.” He adjusts his knotted scarf, “text me when you get there, yeah?”


I finish my beer inside The Dovetail and browse through a broadsheet to kill the time before going to Fields’ Restaurant. The latest news about the spread of the virus in Italy isn’t optimistic. There’s a picture from the Venice carnival of people wearing the traditional masks with the long beaks. They’re based on the “medico della peste” or the masks worn by the plague doctors during the 17th century outbreak. The traditional accessory has now taken on a calamitous connotation, and there is a climate of fear in the city. The festival visitors who delayed their departure are now under strict quarantine in their hotel rooms.


I arrive outside Fields about fifteen minutes before eight o’clock. The streets are eerily quiet for a Friday night, and the bars I’ve passed have been empty. This quarter always has a reason for people to celebrate on a Friday, if only because it’s the start of the weekend. 

I text Gary to let him know I’ve arrived. The lights inside Fields are subdued but welcoming. The host glides towards me from his lectern to hold the door open as I enter the restaurant. 

“Good evening, sir,” he smiles, “and how are you this evening?” It’s as though we’re old acquaintances and he’s been expecting my arrival, and prepared my favourite table in advance.

“Thank you,” I say and lower my voice, “I’m expecting to meet Mrs Ungar...” 

“Oh, I see, sir.” He leans forward to accommodate my discreet tone and removes a pencil from his breast pocket.

“Are you Gaston?” I furrow my brow. 

“No, sir,” he smiles. “The owner left earlier this evening, can I help---”

“Yes, there’s a table booked in the name of Ungar.” 

“Ungar, sir, yes…” His left forefinger skims down a checkerboard of reservation times. 

“That’s Gary Ungar and—-”

”Yes, Mrs Ungar arrived earlier.”

”I’m meeting them both for dinner.”

“I believe that’s...” His right hand drifts to column seven and places a second tick in the box, “table seven, sir.” He raises his head and peers over his spectacles to confirm the arrangement. “A table for three, sir.” He holds out a hand to receive my coat. “If you’d like to join your dining companion in the bar?” He wafts his free hand into the warm glow of the tungsten-illuminated interior. “We’ll let you know when your table’s ready.”

There are eight low wooden tables in the quiet lounge area and a selection of large leather sofas. I select a comfy looking two-seater chesterfield near the bar and place the flowers on a table in front of it. There are six stools at the bar, four of which are occupied. I glance at my phone as I wait for the barman’s attention.

“So who’s the lucky lady?”

I glance up to find a woman of thirty-something standing next to me waiting to order a drink. She’s dressed in the standard battle dress of the legal profession, a trouser suit with classic lines and a tailored shirt with heavy silver cuff links. Her hair is dark and shoulder length; it’s tousled, as though she has had a long day with a pressing deadline. It’s a normal Friday night look in this part of town, even if this isn’t a standard night and the city may never be the same.

“Oh right, you spotted the bouquet of---”

“Can I help you, sir?” The bar man approaches and places two glasses in a rack above our heads.

“Yeah,” she says, staring at me, “I’ll take the same again.”

“So that’s one Mojito with extra lime, madam, and for you, sir?”

“That sounds fine to me.”

“Two Mojitos, very good.” He retrieves the two glasses he’s placed on the upper rack and gives them a brisk wipe. “Shall I start a tab, sir?”

My phone pings and I glance down. “Just let me get---”

“I’ll get this one, Rob.” She lowers her head to catch my eye.

“Oh, no, no, let me.” I flinch and shake my head.

“Hey, slow coach,” she says, rapping her knuckles on the bar, “you’ve got to be quicker than that.” Her brief smile reveals two killer dimples that sparkle for an instant before she reverts to a more formal demeanour. 

“Keep this warm,” she says to Rob and hops off the stool. “Nature calls.”

Rob prepares the cocktails as I scroll through my messages from Gary.

“Hey, Jamie, I’m not going to make it for 8,” Friday 19:46. 

“Hand flowers to Gill & apologise for my delay,” Friday 19:51.

“Enjoy the hospitality. We can catch up later,” Friday 19:59.

I look up to see a woman in a sage green skirt and jacket approaching the seated area from the rear corridor. She peers past me towards the entrance before slumping on a sofa and rifling through her handbag. 

“Hey, Rob,” I grind my teeth and inhale, “do you know anyone here called Gill?”

“A friend of yours is she, sir?” He ceases shaking the silver flask.

“No, actually a colleague invited me to---”

“How are those drinks, Rob?”

“Coming up, madam.” He flips two embossed coasters onto the wooden bar.

“You could use a couple more cubicles in the ladies, loo,” she says, resuming her previous stance, “There’s queue a mile long and you’re short of paper too.”

“I’ll mention it to the manager, madam,” he says, pouring the chilled liquor over the sugar and lime quarters.

“That’s almost perfect, Rob,” she says, examining his handiwork as he inserts a couple of sprigs of mint into each glass. 

“Now for the magic,” she says, gauging my reaction with interest before returning her attention to the matter in hand. 

Rob selects a glass swizzle stick, places it between his palms and swirls the ingredients together. “Now that’s just so.” She turns to me again and gestures a long tanned finger toward my drink. I reach for my glass as the manager approaches and clears his throat. 

“Your table is ready, sir.” There is the briefest of nods to Rob. “I’m sorry for any delay, I hope that---”

“That’s fine,” we clink glasses, “Here’s to closure, cheers!”

“After my day I’d rather not, but if you insist,” she sighs, “here’s to closure.”

The manager winces at that word and waits for us to savour our first sip.

It’s a refreshing mixture that disguises its innate power by being a pleasant drink. I’ve heard tell that after two or three glasses it’s rocket fuel.

“Rob,” she says, rolling the bittersweet juice around her tongue, “you, sir, are a wizard, I could happily drown in that.”

“Years of practice, madam.” He plumps up his chest and removes the silver flask.

“Sir, I’m afraid to say that your table guest has left our premises.” The manager clears his throat once more and adjusts a paper coaster on the bar surface.

I tap my teeth together and look round the bar area. The woman in the sage green is still in her seat and talking to a man in a navy blue blazer with brass buttons. There is a single man at the end of the bar and three empty seats in between. The roses are lying on the table where I placed them and Gill is no longer on site.

“Hey,” I turn to my fellow Mojito enthusiast, “I’d love you to join me for dinner.” 

“This way if you please, sir and,” he waves an arm towards the dining area, “if madam would like to accompany us to the table?”

“Well, I don’t want to take advantage-—”

“We can place your flowers in a vase,” he sniffs, “if madam so wishes?”

“Dinner at Fields and flowers too?” she curls her lips in amusement. “The day’s turned out nicely after all.” She hops off the stool and wraps her fingers around the frosty glass. “Lead the way, I’ll drink to a satisfying ending.”


The waiter lights a large white candle on table seven and lowers a bulbous glass draught protector over it. We sit down and a second waiter places the vase of roses on the empty table next to ours. 

“So, let me get this straight.” She takes a deep breath, “you didn’t have a date tonight, but you brought flowers for a friend of a friend that you’d never met and you thought your boss was going to celebrate your success by treating you here this evening?”

“Well,” I shrug, “that’s right, more or less.”

“Hmm,” she purses her lips, “and what is it you do for a living, again?”

“Well I work for---”

“It wasn’t N.A.S.A. was it?”

“Yeah, yeah, hilarious,” I chuckle, “have you looked at the menu?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she sips her drink, “the chef’s steak’s fine for me, but it has to be medium rare.”

“One steak, done medium rare and for you, sir?” the waiter’s pencil lingers over his note pad and his expression is frozen in mid air until I give my order of braised lamb. “Very good,” he continues, “I’ll bring a selection of roast vegetables and a bottle of the nine-year-old Shiraz from our sommelier’s reserve list.” 

“And two more of Rob’s wonderful creations, please.”

“Of course, madam.” He turns to me. “Sir, will that be all?” I nod. “Thank you.”

The waiter slides into the darkness beyond our candle’s range of illumination.

“I take it you were decanting from your office this week?”

“Well,” I sigh, “that was the plan, but I was compromised somewhat.”

“Yeah, likewise,” she sips her Mojito and smacks her lips. “My client capitulated and I got screwed for time.”

“I ended up packing in about an hour.” I wipe condensation from the side of the glass, “but at least my client got her result and here I am.”

“You’re lucky,” she twists her lips, “I have to clock in and box up tomorrow.”

“It’s funny how things work out.” I look up at her face, hoping to see those dimples again. “I was told I was up against a real ball-breaker and yet she couldn’t take the pace.”

“Is that so?” she says, scrunching her lips together. “Did she come up short?”

“Her defence was a pushover and Mrs Haslam got twice what she expected---”

“Oh, yeah?” she says straightening her back. “I’m thrilled for her.”

The waiter returns and hovers beside us as he slices off the foil from the bottle to expose the cork.

“Waiter,” she says, turning her attention to his labours. “Would you mind putting that bottle down?”

“Madam?” he shrugs, “what is---”

“Thank you,” she forces a smile, “please remove those flowers for me.”

“Madam?” he obliges.

“And if you would be so kind,” she smiles at me and her cheeky dimples appear either side of her gleaming white incisors. “Please pass me the vase.”

“Of course, madam.”

“Thank you.” She takes a firm hold of the tall glass receptacle and in one movement, stands and empties the contents over my head. 

“Too slow, buster.” 

I gasp from the shock of the cold water.

“Who can’t take the pace now?”

My jaw sags open as the water runs down my face and soaks through my jacket. She hands the empty vase to the waiter and resumes her seat once more. I can’t help noticing that her dimples have remained either side of her quivering smile.

“Will that be all, sir?”

The End

February 19, 2021 22:11

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Graham Kinross
23:01 Dec 19, 2021

She was the other lawyer in the case? Oops. Nice ending. Took me a second to see it.


Howard Halsall
23:39 Dec 19, 2021

Hello Graham, thanks for reading my story. I’m glad you enjoyed it and relieved it all made sense.


Graham Kinross
23:55 Dec 19, 2021

It did. There have been a few stories with a twist on reedsy that left me with no clue what was going on but you had enough information for me to work it out.


Graham Kinross
03:57 Dec 25, 2021

Merry Christmas Howard. Thank you for reading my stories and I’m looking forward to reading more of yours.


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Cathryn V
04:48 Feb 22, 2021

Hello Howard! The ending was certainly a shocker! Good job on that twist. The beginning is great with good descriptions. I was right with you until he left Jerry behind. After that I couldn’t quite follow. Maybe you could give a few cues along the way to keep the reader oriented. I like the bar/restaurant description- made me want to go there. 😉 I like the woman’s description too. I’m not sure why she dumped the water on his head...too slow? What? I hope this is helpful. Please disregard if not! Thanks for writing!


Howard Halsall
07:43 Feb 22, 2021

Hi Cathryn, how are doing? I hope you’re keeping healthy and away from the virus? Thank you for reading my story and giving me some feedback. With regards to your comments maybe I need to add a couple more hints at the end to make it work as I intended. The woman’s reaction is as a result of hearing the client’s name.... She has a moment of realisation... They’ve been working on the same case against each other. I didn’t want to make it too obvious but maybe it’s just not clear enough? H :)


Cathryn V
19:18 Feb 22, 2021

Hi Howard, I'm doing well. Surviving this weather in Oregon with the wind, ice, snow and rain. I'll be getting my first vaccine next week so I'm really jazzed about that. Re your story, I think Heather's suggestions are valid. Are you by any chance an attorney? Maybe part of my confusion is related to the post trial (if that's the right word?) process. I didn't see an indicator that he was meeting with the other party's attorney. Anyway, your scene descriptions are excellent.


Howard Halsall
19:30 Feb 22, 2021

Hi Cathryn, I’m reworking the story as I send this note. I’ll let you know when I’ve replaced the current version. If you have time to have a read that would be fantastic...? I’m glad to hear you’re surviving the ongoing pandemic and your vaccination will come as some comfort... Have you done any more work on your story today? HH :)


Cathryn V
19:36 Feb 22, 2021

Sure, I"m happy to read it again. My story was approved earlier today so I can't edit anymore. Do you have any idea of the Reedsy process? Until my last admission, I was approved on Wednesdays. But the last one (empty chairs) and this one were both closed on Mondays. Interesting right? I know there are a lot of stories they have to read. Also I can't seem to gain points. Not that it matters, But lol, I feel unpopular. like I'm in third grade again. hahaha


Howard Halsall
20:17 Feb 22, 2021

Hi Cathryn, I don’t know the process but I think that means you’re being short listed... which means you’re top of the class. Well done and good luck. Fingers crossed. HH :)


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Troy Lane
03:11 Mar 05, 2021

Well written, kept me wondering where this would go. A good lesson about not criticising others, especially publicly and to strangers.


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Cathryn V
23:57 Feb 22, 2021

Yes, it's better. Probably clear to most people; I really like the sophisticated feeling of the story. But I don't understand the significance of the woman in the sage skirt; or Gaston? This part throws me because I assume this means something and wait for the woman to show up again... The woman in the sage green is still in her seat and talking to a man in a navy blue blazer with brass buttons. There is a single man at the end of the bar and three empty seats in between. The roses are lying on the table where I placed them and Gill is n...


Howard Halsall
01:45 Feb 23, 2021

Hi Cathryn, I think I’ve fixed various complications and made things much clearer now... I need to stand back from it... Thanks again for your very useful insights and sound judgement... HH :)


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H L McQuaid
14:28 Feb 22, 2021

Hi Howard, Thought I'd pop on over to your story and see what's happening. I like the idea behind the story, and the dialogue was good. I agree with Cathryn's critique, about being a bit confused. Why did his boss send him to the restaurant with flowers? Who was he supposed to meet? Why did she leave? If all of that was a set-up to get Jamie to the restaurant, then maybe it could be simpler: the boss tells Jamie he's arranged a celebratory dinner, and then the boss is late. Unless I'm missing some crucial detail about the woman he's mea...


Howard Halsall
14:36 Feb 22, 2021

Hello Heather, Thanks for reading my story and giving me your feedback. Some useful pointers and yes, simple is always best, I agree. I need to have a rethink concerning the plotting, it is complicated... hmm. I’ll have another read and figure it out. HH


H L McQuaid
14:53 Feb 22, 2021

I've been learning a lot about short stories (best practices), and while there's nothing wrong with a more complicated plot in a novel, there's only so much that can be (reasonably) done in a short story format. For my recent story, I've been trying to use the stuff I learned in the last Reedsy Write-in "Writing a Short Story" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ymxZo4yDOf4), which was really helpful. If you've not already seen it, I'd recommend the first 30 minutes (lots of useful advice), and maybe the last 5 or 10 (Q&A), and skip the bit w...


Howard Halsall
15:08 Feb 22, 2021

Hi H! That sounds worthwhile having a look at. I got an invitation from Reedsy to join a live forum, but I didn’t make the time to attend. So if there’s a video recording of the discussion then that’s very handy, so thank you for the tip. HH :)


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